Truthbombs From Rilke

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By Katelyn Foster '15

I don’t know how many of you might have seen me the last week of school, but here’s a pretty accurate description of my physical state as the term was ending: nearing day four of skipping a shower, hair was suddenly curly in a really not-cute way from humidity/grease, nose dribbling and crusty around the edges, coughing up a lung, sunburnt to shit from the collective heat stroke that was Commencement, eyes puffy and swollen from crying. Yeah. I was basically a farting snot machine full of emotion.

When faced with the brink of change, my first reaction is nearly almost always utter and total despair. This time was no different. Given that two people I really love were graduating and another was preparing for a year-long study abroad in Paris, I wrote things on the Internet like “i [sic] feel like there’s a great big hole in my heart,” and “currently on the edge of a vast loneliness.” My mantra became The Reasons My Summer Will Suck, a list I had written in a Word document that repeated the phrase “no friends” ad infinitum. When there was nothing left to do, I said my goodbyes and I went home. And then, when I was sure I would continue on in this state of groveling melancholy for the foreseeable future, one of those great coincidences of life brought me to the exact book I needed to be reading.

Written between 1903 and 1908, Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters from Rainer Maria Rilke to a young fan, Mr. Kappus – the letters of response from the recipient are not included, only Rilke’s words, which read as though the audience has been privileged to one side of a very intimate conversation. Concrete details of the respective lives of recipient and sender fall through the cracks as the larger picture of humanity’s relationship with creation, memory, and solitude emerges. I had picked it off the shelf without much thought, but it soon became clear that Rilke speaks volumes on what I was going through. While addressing Mr. Kappus’ concerns that recent disappointments may be all-engulfing, Rilke says:

“…ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven't rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad… For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.”

Repeatedly Rilke demands that the reader draw back, reflect, contemplate the larger workings of our interconnected lives. He reminds the reader that pain is not singular, that others have felt it, and that this pain may become a creative force for deeper thought.

That brutal, beautiful thing that is the bare truth carries through Rilke’s words, and it struck me hard. You know when your best friend tells you something you really don’t want to hear but you know deep down they had to say it? Reading Letters to a Young Poet was a bit like that. Each complaint I had about my situation – friends far off, looming uncertainty, a paralyzing fear of being alone – was addressed in full by Rilke’s extreme honesty. And like a best friend, Rilke drops harsh knowledge wrapped in a warm blanket. His advice doesn’t leave you cold or hurt, only comforted:

“…love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can't take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind.”
Rilke pushed me to accept that, really, I’m doing fine. My friends are far away and I spend a lot of time by myself. But it’s only a summer.